Camping: the good, the bad and the ugly

Camping can be a crapshoot. Our ideal experience involves shady treed sites, quiet neighbours, a campfire and perhaps a babbling brook. Our less-than-ideal involves all-night parties, little or no privacy, and a cast of characters that we would never otherwise meet (and that’s good thing.)

We’re happy to say that 90% of our camping experiences meet the former description – the latter is a reminder than camping is just another version of real life.

In the past seven days, we have travelled from Fernie to Manning Park, with Christina Lake as our first stop.

We’ve wanted to check out this lake for a long time –  friends have raved about the great swimming and mountain-wrapped views.

There was a hint of smoke in the air from the many forest fires that have burned all summer in the U.S. and Canada. This was the clearest day we had and the water was cool and refreshing.

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We booked into a private campground on the south end of the lake, just a block from a small beach and right around the corner from a burger/hot dog/soft-serve ice-cream stand that looks as though it’s been in business for decades.

Christina Lake has that kind of atmosphere – a summer favourite that hasn’t been gussied up yet – the tiniest bit tacky and filled with people who have been coming here for years. It’s homey and family-oriented. The kids get to play without too much adult supervision.

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The very next day, the smoke was back:

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Our campsite was fine, but for two days we were entertained by the shenanigans of the campers two sites over. The owner had already warned us about them – they had been turfed out of another campground and were “on notice.”

The main perpetrator (she of the tight clothing and bleached hair) swanned about in a shirt that boasted, “KINKY AS F–K” (we tended to believe her).  Her hapless male partner did little but smoke and sulk and at one point walked right through our campsite with a pillow and blanket, enroute to a vacant site, saying “She’s making too much noise.”  They had two young girls (quiet) and three small dogs (yappy) who barked and barked until the woman yelled out “SHUT-UP”, which would quieten them for exactly 30 seconds until the next go-round. On Day 3, they abruptly left and the rest of our stay was perfectly peaceful.

Christina Lake is not far from Grand Forks – a town that suffered terrible damage this spring from flooding. We drove in one day for something to do and discovered a surprisingly pretty town; parts of which are still recovering and likely will for years. These posters were on many storefronts that are closed and under renovation.

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We had an excellent lunch at a place called The Board Room; packed with customers since so many restaurants have yet to open. Fantastic sandwiches, great coffee, watermelon-scented ice water – a welcome change from camp food. The mood among the locals seemed to be quite upbeat – Grand Forks is a small community where everyone rallies to help out.

We also went to the Saturday market, but since it was threatening thunderstorms, there were not many people there. We did stop to talk to a couple who transplanted from Vancouver last year, bought a farm in Grand Forks and are valiantly making a go of it. It’s been a good move for them – they love the area and are obviously doing something right.

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On the way back to our campground, we saw a bunch of cars lined up on the highway, which usually means one thing: wildlife viewing. Lucky us –  a small herd of big-horned sheep.

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As we got closer, we realized there was a territorial spat going on – two males facing off, presumably for the rights to the females, who kept their backs turned to the posturing.
We watched for a long while but aside from a couple of fake charges, nothing much was happening.

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Leaving Christina Lake, we had another weird experience. Stephen was driving and out of nowhere, a car zoomed up behind him and aggressively tailgated. At the first opportunity, the driver sped past us,  honked his horn, and flipped us the bird; his face ugly and contorted.  We were gobsmacked by this unprovoked display of road rage and hugely gratified to see him pulled over a few kilometres down the road.

We drove on for four hours through tremendously smoky conditions, but by the time we arrived in Manning Park, the air quality was much better.

I’ve given you the bad and the ugly sides of camping – Manning Park was nothing but good. This was our campsite:

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We walked about 10 yards from our site to the creek. We fell asleep at night to the sounds of rushing water and rustling trees and woke up to really cool temps – about nine degrees. This is mountain camping – even in August.

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We met an interesting couple from Moncton in the site next to us – they were on their honeymoon, riding across Canada on His and Hers Kawasakis.  We wondered if they kept in formation as they rode.

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She is a PhD student who had been in Bali to study the phenomenon of the high rate of  deafness in the small community of Bengkala. Due to a geographically-centric recessive gene, 40-50 people in a population of 3,000 have been deaf since birth. The amazing thing about it is that rather than treat these folks as “other”, everyone in the village learns to sign so that everyone can communicate. This is a story for our troubled times.

Manning Park is huge – over 83,000 hectares and the main attraction is the vast number of hiking trails that range from a half-hour stroll to a six-day backcountry hike. The wildlife is another big deal – during our three and a half days here, we saw a number of animals up close.

Mum was very watchful as we approached and as we continued to slowly walk toward them, they made their elegant way into the forest. Just like that…they were gone.

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We came across a couple of bucks, who seemed far less worried about us and bounded up the slope in their own good time.

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In many areas of the park, especially around Lightning Lake, we saw an impressive system of tunnels, and every once in a while, up would pop a Columbian ground squirrel. They have no fear of people at all – as soon as this little guy saw me taking his photo, he started scampering toward me.  I’m not proud to admit it,  but I screamed and ran. I had an unpleasant image of those sharp little nails climbing up my leg.

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Hiking in Manning Park this time of year is glorious – no bugs, comfortable temperatures and over 20 trails to choose from. Since neither of us were inclined to choose from trails that were 16 km. (one way), we chose a couple of 9 km. hikes – just enough grade and distance to give us a bit of a workout.

On our first hike out, the park ranger alerted us to a mother bear and cubs that had been sighted the day before – alas, no such luck for us. Still, the scenery more than made up for it.

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We thought we might see bears on this open area – maybe Stephen’s “Hey bear” calls and my shrill whistling scared them off.

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This hike promised three waterfalls, but we saw just two. After months of hot, dry weather, neither of them were terribly exciting. It’s funny how people will walk miles if they think they might see a waterfall, and almost invariably they are a trickle, not a roar.

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Another hike we took was a 9-km. loop around Lightning Lake – the central lake in Manning Park that is a magnet for canoes, kayaks and swimmers.

We followed this path to the end of the lake and onto the other side, to pick up the trail.

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The water was like a millpond that day; we almost had the trail to ourselves.

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A bridge at the halfway point.

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Another small bridge in the woods.

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We loved Manning Park – there is so much to do there and the campgrounds (there are four) feel like the wilderness. It was the perfect way to end our camping adventures for now. We would highly recommend this park to anyone, but be sure to camp. Manning Park Lodge (the only accommodation in the park) has seen better days.

We stopped in Hope on our way to Vancouver and I would like to leave you with this photo. I don’t know why, but the sight of dogs sitting in the driver’s seat always makes me laugh.

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We will be out of cell service and wifi range for a bit – see you again in about a week.

 

Legendary Fernie

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Fernie is a town we have wanted to visit for many years, but it was never on our flight path. Now we’ve finally made it and curiously, Fernie is a lot as we had imagined – a mountain town without pretension.

We are staying right in the heart of Fernie Alpine Resort, about 4 km. from town. We are a stone’s throw from the summer ski lifts.

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While the scenery is gorgeous, it is marred somewhat by the smoky haze that has travelled south from the many forest fires currently blazing in B.C.  Apparently “smoke” is frequently part of the summer scene here and the locals take it in stride. We’re trying to imagine how breathtaking this must be in February, with metres of snow and bright blues skies.

Our hotel, Fernie Slopeside Lodge, could use a coat of paint, but you can’t beat the location. The rooms are basic, but clean and well-equipped with coffee maker, fridge and microwave – they even offer surprisingly high-end toiletries. Try finding a hotel room of any description for $65 at the height of the summer in Jasper or Banff.

We’re partial to mountain towns – they tend to have a lovely uncomplicated energy; filled with residents who are fit, active and healthy.  We lived in Banff for two years and have visited Lake Louise, Kananaskis, Revelstoke, Whistler, Pemberton and Nelson and the common denominator is the same – outdoor life rules.

In Fernie in the summer, the bicycle is king. There are dozens of mountain biking trails that range from shady paths in town to extreme alpine slopes designed for full gear and steely nerves. ( We didn’t catch the latter, so we’re showing you the former – more my speed.)

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In town, car drivers are far more courteous than we’ve seen elsewhere. If you even hesitate near an intersection, cars come to a stop and wave you through. There are a few free bike wash stands throughout the town; a thoughtful gesture that speaks to a municipality that understands the needs of its people.

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Another homage to bike life.

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And since we are on the subject of street art, after Stephen watched two little girls having their photos taken, posing in the “wings”, he could not resist following suit.

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This upscale yoga studio is typical of Fernie – fortunes from its original coal mining days have most definitely shifted.

The  main street is filled with trendy stores and restaurants, and more than a few bike and outdoor gear shops. Fernie is not turning into another Whistler by any means, but it is expanding its target market as the word gets out.

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And yet, it seems to be a town that hasn’t forgotten its residents.  In the summer, every Wednesday night offers free music and we were keen to join in. The band was forgettable, but it was fun to be part of the crowd. There were tourists to be sure, but we watched the locals mingling back and forth – their town still belongs to them.  We drank excellent local beer from Fernie Brewing  and a number of food trucks were on hand. We chose from this truck – fantastic Vietnamese food.

This little boy was having such a good time, he forgot where his parents were and went over to help himself to another gentleman’s drink.

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The days have been quite steamy – in the low 30s, so we were grateful to cool off at the Fernie Aquatic Centre.  We’ve driven by the golf course and watched people fly fishing and launching inflatables in the Elk River. It would take time to run out of things to do here.

Fernie has a rich history, which is evident in the architecture – almost all of it built after a disastrous fire in 1904.  The town developed in the late 1800’s after the discovery of a coal vein to the east of the town. After a number of tumultuous boom-and-bust periods, mining activity moved from underground to five open-pit mines about 25 km. away, and remains an essential part of the economy. In just three days here, we were stopped twice at railway tracks while 100-car coal trains chugged by to the coast.

We took a self-guided tour of Fernie’s historic downtown, beginning with the current City Hall, formerly the Crow’s Nest Pass Coal Co. offices.  The grounds in front of City Hall present Miner’s Walk – a pictorial guide of Fernie’s coal mining history from past to present.

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The Court House is considered one of B.C’s finest buildings.

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The old Imperial Bank, circa 1909, and now home to a restaurant.

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These are just a few of the notable well-restored downtown buildings. The residential side streets house a number of styles, from miner’s cottages to Victorian Gothic.

There are dozens of hiking trails to choose from and while some are multi-day, requiring advanced skills and guides, most are easy day hikes, ranging from 1-hour loop trails to 3-hour hikes with slight grades. Before setting off on our first hike, we read the hand-written sign that warned of ongoing sightings of a grizzly bear and her cubs and a black bear and her cubs. We spoke to a couple of hikers who had seen a cougar under a chair lift.

We knew we were in wildlife country and need to take appropriate precautions, so we clapped, whistled and sang as we traipsed along. We were thrilled when we stopped for a drink of water and turned around to see this, emerging from the woods just behind us:

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We were standing on the side of this boardwalk and watched this cow as she stared at us, found us unworthy and began picking her way through the marsh. My heart was pounding. And then, her calf joined her and we felt like the luckiest people – experiencing that contact with wildlife that you can easily miss by the blink of an eye.

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There were enough people on the trail that a bear encounter did not seem likely, but we did see relatively fresh scat and as we continued along through abundant berry patches, we kept our eyes peeled.

Over two days, we set out on three hikes. A sampling of the scenery:

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We drove to Island Lake Lodge, just off the highway before Fernie and set out on a hike around the lake. The lake looked quite murky but there is a raft there, presumably to encourage people to swim.

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Island Lake Lodge – accessible only by a winding 8-km. gravel road from the highway. When you finally arrive, the setting is gorgeous, and the three imposing cedar-timbered structures are pure B.C.  rustic/luxurious.  The many trails leading from the lodge are open to both guests and the public.

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We’ve wanted to come to Fernie for years and are happy to have finally made it. Right now, it hits a perfect balance between being itself and being a tourist destination. Our hope for Fernie is that it will not succumb to tourist pressures and change the face of the town forever.

We’re on our way to Christina Lake – see you again in a few days.

From migrating birds to the Final Frontier

Did you know the Arctic Tern flies more than 40,000 km. from southern Chile to the Arctic and back every year? It is one of more than 250 species of migratory birds that uses Lesser Slave Lake as a major resting point – often compared to Point Pelee (Southern Ontario) in terms of migratory importance.

A group of birds playing by the shore – the Arctic Terns are the ones with black heads.

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This is just one of the fascinating facts we learned while visiting Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park, about four hours north of Edmonton.  The Boreal Centre for Bird Conservation is one of the attractions in the park and we dropped by to learn more about what birds might be in the area. It houses an excellent interpretive area.

The centre is a world-class research and education facility and a site for visiting students and researchers.

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Unfortunately we were in the area just between seasons for many of the major migratory birds and about three hours too late in the morning to wander the nearby Songbird Trail to any great effect. We didn’t miss out entirely though – we woke up every morning in our campsite about 6:00 am to cacophonous birdsong.

We were primarily at Lesser Slave Lake for the pristine camping and swimming but serious birders should not miss this spot.

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Our camping at Lesser Slave Lake was a full-on Discovery Channel experience. The first night there we woke up to an explosive thunderstorm. It had been brewing for a couple of hours – threatening skies and distant rumbles, but  when we tucked into our  tent for the night, there was not as much as a raindrop.

A couple of hours later – boom – thunder and lightening right overhead, crackling and pounding. Water pummelled our tent as though a giant was hurling buckets at us. It was thrilling but a bit unnerving and a bit disappointing – we wanted to watch this fantastic show, but felt pinned to the spot. We were so warm, dry and cozy and not willing to zip and unzip the tent and run to the car, getting soaked in the process.

The next morning, we woke to sunshine. Lesser Slave Lake is the second largest lake in Alberta – 100 km. long and 15 km. wide. From our perch on the white sand beach, it felt like we were staring straight out to sea.  The water is delicious –  you could almost drink it. Clean and cool with a sandy bottom – exquisite swimming. We are used to the buoyancy and life of ocean swimming,  but I could be a convert to clean northern lakes. It was also quiet – home to kayakers, fishers, stand-up paddlers and a flotilla of inflatable rafts, sharks, and flamingos – not a jet-ski in sight. This is our kind of beach.

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It is also home to amazing fishing; all the northern greats – walleye, pike, whitefish, perch and ling cod. We watched one man bring in a fish about 18″ long that his wife carefully measured before he headed off to the fish cleaning station. He caught that in about 15 minutes, just wading out to his waist from shore.

Hiking is another attraction. We headed for the nearby Marten Mountain lookout and again, we were dealing with threatening skies. We were just between systems, so weather remained changeable.

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The fire station is at the summit. This tower serves as a lookout for signs of small fires that can be dealt with before they become a serious problem.

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The fire of 2011 in Slave Lake was a catastrophe that  covered 4700 hectares, destroyed 400 structures and resulted in $700 million dollars worth of damage. It was determined that it was likely the work of an arsonist. The town of Slave Lake has rebuilt, but the effects on part of the landscape will be evident for years to come.

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We followed this path for about half an hour, but between our (my)  worries about confronting a grizzly (heightened by the many warning signs), we lost our nerve and turned back. Time to buy bear spray and feel better equipped to enjoy the wilderness.

We followed fresh moose tracks for about a kilometre – I wish we could have seen him (her) from a safe distance.

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We very reluctantly left Lesser Slave Lake a day early, as it was forecasting extreme thunderstorms.  It gave us another taste of the north that we are keen to return to – next time with our trailer.

From Lesser Slave Lake, we headed south to Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park; a place recommended to us by our friend Laurence. The campgrounds right in the park were solidly booked for the long weekend, so we felt lucky to grab the last spot in a private campground about 20 km. away.

Our camping experiences so far have been wonderful, but they have all been in provincial parks, they are well monitored and contain what we regard as camping essentials – nicely treed private sites, evening campfires and quiet, respectful fellow campers. Our very own nature cocoons.

When we drove into the private campground near Dry Island Buffalo Jump my heart sank. A line-up of camping chairs stretched down the road for about three campsites, filled with adults with drinks in hand. A boisterous game of beanbag toss was in progress. Thwap. Thwap. Thwap – this sound, accompanied by screams and encouraging yells went on for hours.  Music blasted from one of the RV speakers. A table was set up with an eye-watering amount of booze. We backed into our site, and began setting up our tent; knowing there were no other options at this late hour.
We also knew it would get much worse, but we figured they would be shut down by 11:00 pm (the enforced quiet time according to the sign.)  The park was beautiful, set right on the Red Deer River, so we tried to concentrate on the positive, but we couldn’t help but feel envious of the other campers who were situated in quieter areas of the campground.

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To make matters worse, another multi-family party set up right behind us and they carried on long into the night. We enjoyed our days away sightseeing, but our evenings were miserable, and our polite requests to keep the music down were ignored. Our complaint to the park operator fell on deaf ears, since “we can’t ask people to go to bed at 11:00.
These were not bad people; inconsiderate certainly, but just different people looking for different things. We just had the poor luck of landing in a well-known party campground on a long weekend.

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We made up for our disappointing experience in the campground by visiting the surrounding sites, primarily Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park. This is a little-known treasure of a park – very similar in terrain to the Badlands, with hoodoos and coulees, and scrub grasslands to wander for miles. This is also a prime fishing and rafting site.

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We hiked in for about an hour, and then back again, hoping to spot a rattlesnake. We never did see one, but this little fellow visited us when we stopped for a picnic.

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The area around Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park is beautiful.  I’m guessing this countryside would be referred to as High Plains as it is rolling and lush with vast prosperous wheat and grain farms. And of course, this is the land of the famous Alberta beef. The calf was on the other side of the road when we drove by, but she scurried back over to mum for protection as we approached.

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A nearby diversion was Big Valley (pop. 349), and home to the Big Valley Creation Science Museum. It was closed (in spite of the OPEN sign in the window), but plaques around the front lawn left little doubt that evolution was seriously being called into question.

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Just around the corner was recreation of an old wild west town – the Jimmy Jock Boardwalk. Not much going on there besides a fudge shop and a restaurant.

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The original jail was just up the street; big enough for one drunken miscreant to cool his heels for the night.

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At the crest of the hill, the St. Edmunds Anglican Church (circa 1916) held a command post.

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These small towns and hamlets rely on tourism to help prevent them from dying out entirely, and one enterprise here is courtesy of the Alberta Prairie Railway Excursions. They run old steam or diesel trains between Stettler and Big Valley, and package tours  include the round-trip travel, on-board entertainment, plus a staged hold-up by armed and masked bandits – for the not-inconsiderable sum of $145. Once safely in Big Valley, dinner is served and then passengers return to Stettler – a six hour excursion in total. The trains appear to be packed every time.

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We stopped at DNA Gardens for a visit. This enterprising business sells, among other things, homemade kombucha, fermented vegetables and bat houses. We bought French vanilla ice cream from this self-possessed young woman – another face of Alberta.

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And finally…the town of Vulcan. This town can lay claim to the name long before Star Trek hit the screen – it was named by a CPR surveyor after the Roman God of Fire.

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However, it has capitalized on the Star Trek series by building a themed tourist station, and sure enough – build it, and they will come.  Overpriced merch and  a chance to dress up as Spock – this was not reason enough to leave the highway, but a fun respite on our way to Fort MacLeod.

How the Ukrainians won the West

We didn’t have to travel to Alberta to meet up with Ukrainians – we have dear friends in Nanaimo who have proudly brought us into the Ukrainian fold. In fact, Stephen’s background is a mix of Polish/Ukrainian, although he didn’t grow up with any of the food/music/dance accoutrements that define “being Ukrainian.”

We knew so little about early Ukrainian settlement in the prairies  but were curious to find out more. The Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, located a half hour outside of Edmonton, was our chance to find out. Billed as a “living history” open air museum, the village is made up of over 40 buildings that have been brought to this site from nearby settlements. The buildings are original, but the village has been constructed to represent how a typical early Ukrainian settlement between 1892- 1930 might have looked.

We picked up our site map and wandered through the excellent Visitor Centre for an overview before wandering the village. Currently on display is an exhibition of paintings by Peter Shostak, called “Painting to Remember” – about the experiences of the early settlers.  They portrayed the absolute starkness of the landscape contrasted with the hopefulness of new immigrants keen to begin a better life.

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The Village has been faithfully constructed, with an emphasis on historical authenticity.  Most of the buildings are open to the public and populated by costumed role-players who remain firmly in character as they discuss their lives and the issues of 1930. Our first stop was at the Morecambe School, where we spoke with “Miss Borovsky”. She was responsible for teaching Grades 1-5, and her male counterpart taught the older grades. As was the way back then, children walked to school; six miles uphill – both ways. Miss Borovsky roomed with a nearby family. The young blonde blue-eyed actor played her part so well that I was curious to know more about her (in real life.) Was she an actor, a student, Ukrainian? (It is not necessary to be Ukrainian to work at the Village.)

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We found out that the earliest settlers were from Galicia and Bukovina, and much to our surprise, we discovered that although the territory of present-day Ukraine has been in existence for hundreds of years, it has only been independent from Russia since 1991. Further to that, it is not politically or grammatically correct to refer to the country as “The Ukraine”, but simply as “Ukraine.”

We’ve been to a number of historical forts and villages and reenactments over the years, but this was one of the best. The characters never falter from their roles and in some cases, the accents would give Meryl Streep a run for her money. This woman spoke so convincingly, she could have just arrived from the old country. I wanted to ask her if it was hard to practice the accent, but then thought better of it, in case she was in fact a recent immigrant and I insulted her.

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The railway station, an essential tie to the outside world, and the grain elevator – one of the economic engines of small-town Alberta. Inside, we found a sassy young woman who didn’t seem that interested in working, but wanted to gossip with us. She bemoaned the fact she hadn’t found a suitable suitor yet – at age 18. She sold us two tickets to Vancouver – for $1 each, and warned us about hard seats and “many stops.”

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Churches were the heart of the community and since Ukrainians worshipped at Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, or Greek Catholic, there were churches for all parishioners.

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Homes were simple structures, often just a couple of rooms. Since the settlers had to be mainly self-sufficient, most homes had massive gardens, heavy log barns and pig sties.

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Not everything in the village came out of the settlers homes. By this time, they had access to the Eaton’s catalogue. We visited the general store, and had an entertaining visit with the young shopkeeper.

When a family with a little boy came into the store, the shopkeeper told the little kid he could have a candy but he’d have to work for it. He handed him a broom and told him to sweep off the walk. Sure enough, that walk was swept in record time and the boy had his choice of Scotch mints or black licorice.

We were hot and footsore after a couple of hours of walking, and were more than happy to accept a ride with Nathan and his team of Percherons.

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He regaled us with stories of village life, then stopped to pick up two woman and four children. As the kids scooted in beside us, Stephen could not resist telling the little boy beside me to be careful. “She hits,” he warned, and Nathan turned around and agreed. “Yes, she looks pretty vicious.” The poor little boy hopped over to sit beside his mother and kept giving me sideways glances for the rest of the ride. Perhaps all the role-playing was a bit much for him.

This Village is as much about the universal immigrant story as it is about the hardships of Ukrainians settling into a cold and inhospitable land and trying to make it home. I tried to imagine what it would be like to flee your home because of famine, war, or racially-motivated massacres and I don’t believe I have the slightest idea of the challenges so many people have faced and continue to face. Historical sites like this one are so valuable for beginning to understand what it means to be an immigrant.

A thoroughly engrossing and informative day, and a great way to end our time in Edmonton.

 

 

“A fine city with too many socialists and mosquitoes.”

This pithy summary of Edmonton comes to you from former premier Ralph Klein; one which damns the city with faint praise and doesn’t begin to do it justice. Klein wasn’t lying about the mosquitoes.  As for the socialists – yes, it would seem they are here, armed with their bicycles and hemp shopping bags and liberal views. They help to strike a balance in an oil-defined province.

Edmonton’s skyline is dominated by building cranes, a good mix of old and new buildings and plenty of greenspace. The city is bustling with upgrades and new builds and road construction. There is a robust feeling of growth and prosperity here, without the punishing housing costs – a Canadian city that is still affordable.

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We arrived in Edmonton with few preconceived ideas, other than it has brutally cold winters and was once the home of Wayne Gretzky.   Since The Great One has not been in Edmonton for 30 years, we were obviously in need of an update.

We stayed at an Airbnb in the Whyte Avenue area – known for its leafy residential streets, and cluster of shops, cafes, cinemas and street art. Our host was Janice, a New Zealander who has lived in Edmonton for 20 years. We were very warmly welcomed, and invited to borrow their bikes, pick from their raspberry patch and we even shared a dinner with them one night.

Our host Janice, with her brother Ross on the left and partner Edwin on the right.

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Their backyard, where we spent many an enjoyable hour reading and relaxing in the shade. We stayed in the basement suite, but their garage suite gave us some interesting ideas for a future home.

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Edmonton has many neighbourhoods; each of them with a distinctive flavour and look. We really enjoy the older areas, where there are lots of trees, lush wild gardens and a mix of homes.

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The North Saskatchewan River snakes through the city and a series of trails were constructed on either side of the river that run for miles and miles. Lucky Edmontonians – they can bike, run, walk their dogs (generous off-leash areas are also provided) or go for a leisurely stroll – sheltered from cars and surrounded in most areas by trees. We took out bikes a couple of times, and just zoomed along on trails and over bridges like this one.

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Edmonton has a really strong food scene and as it happened,  Taste of Edmonton was on while we were there. This celebration of local restaurant, food truck and beverage culture was enhanced by nightly bands and attractions. I have no food photos for you – our bite-sized servings of Braised Short Rib & Mash and Almond Satay Thai Noodle Salad were un- photogenically brown and beige.

People-watching was the usual entertaining thing – three young brothers daring each other to jump off a concrete ledge; oblivious to the young couple enthusiastically making out right in front them.  The setting was just behind the stately Alberta Legislature, where we were quite tickled to see the Reflecting Pool, just beyond the fountain,  being enjoyed as a swimming pool, with nary a guard in sight to chase them away.

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An interesting diversion was a 20-minute trip along former CPR tracks over the High Level Bridge from the old Strathcona neighbourhood to downtown. We boarded a heritage electric streetcar and listened to a brief history of the streetcars while we slowly made our way  along.  This service is run by the Edmonton Radial Railway Society, entirely on a volunteer basis by society members.

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A view from the bridge:

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We took a self-guided Art Tour through downtown where dozens of art installations, sculptures, murals and paintings are located.

A clever installation, called Recycles 2001. Made of found materials, it is a testament to Edmontonian’s love of the bicycle.

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The Aboriginal Walk of Honour is a tribute to indigenous artists in the arts and film industry.  Among the notables:

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The Neon Sign Museum is a captivating collection of Edmonton’s old commercial neon signs, gathered from all over the city and mounted outside on a long brick wall.

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Right around the corner, we stumbled upon Rogers Place. A statue, entitled Wayne Gretzky 1989, stands outside, commemorating the Oilers past glories.

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Edmonton’s downtown is particularly charming because it is such a mix of old and new. The arena, flanked by new skyscrapers and the historic Mercer building.

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Around the corner from Rogers Place, an installation called Pillars of the Community 2016. Each side depicted “unsung heroes, daily faces and less-heard people.” I was struck by the profoundly moving expression of this man – neither defiant nor defeated.

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A trip to Edmonton is probably not complete without a visit to the West Edmonton Mall – the largest mall in North America. What does the largest mall look like, you ask? Well, it houses two hotels, nine attractions, including a waterpark, golf course and ice skating rink. There are over 100 dining venues, and over 800 stores. We were looking for shoes for Stephen and had 64 shoe stores from which to choose.  We both suffer from mall anxiety, but strangely the WEM elicits nothing more than a strangely floating sensation and frank curiosity.  How does one make a purchasing decision here? We tried to get a couple of crowd shots, but the mall is not crowded. The parking lots are jammed, and then the 90,000-200,000 people who visit daily simply … disperse.

Watching this young skater was calming and a bit surreal – why not go for a skate while everyone around you shops for bed linens or eats ice cream?

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A commercial scene a little closer to our hearts is Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue. We could walk there from our Airbnb – to find dinner among Ethiopian, Thai, Vietnamese, British pub, Mexican and bistro offerings. We could shop for organic produce, vintage dresses, or Fluevog shoes. We could also dig around and discover the street art.

This grabbed us – ET or the hand of God? Painted by BIP (Believe in People), an anonymous artist who paints all over the world.

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This six-storey mural,  by definitely-not-anonymous artist Okuda San Miguel, was commissioned by local restaurateur and filmmaker Michael Maxxis, and was completed  in mid-July of this year.

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Whyte Avenue is home to the Old Strathcona Farmers Market. You won’t find lemons or pineapples here – everything sold must be locally grown, baked or hand-made. It was a bit of a mob scene, but that’s what we got for arriving at 10:30 on a Saturday morning.

I liked the donut lady – her offerings presented like the precious delectables that they are.

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The usual market line-up – blueberries, bison and beets, peonies, pesto, and pillowy perogies. If someone can tell me why these cabbages are shaped like rolled cones, I would appreciate it.

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There are so many things to see and do in and around Edmonton and we just scratched the surface. We missed the magnificent Art Gallery, Fort Edmonton and Elk Island. We didn’t stop by for a drink at CP Hotel Macdonald. We did get to Muttart Conservatory. This is a  landmark in Edmonton made distinctive by four glass pyramids that house over 700 species in four biomes – Arid, Tropical, Temperate and a Feature biome that changes several times a year.

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The Feature biome, Museum of the Moon, featured a massive Moon model by UK artist Luke Jerram that has travelled the world and is currently showing in Edmonton. It was accompanied by space-appropriate music and space-imagined plantings.

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And finally – our Edmonton friends and family.  Three years ago, we didn’t know a soul in Edmonton. Now, we have six lovely connections ( eight, if you count our new Airbnb friends).

Our daughter-in-law Alanna grew up in Edmonton. Her parents (divorced and remarried) still live here and when we suggested getting together, both sets of parents invited us for dinner – all six of us. We enjoyed two wonderful dinners, long conversations about a variety of subjects and now we feel like part of Alanna’s clan. We tried to figure out how we might refer to them – are we in-laws? We decided in-laws is not quite right, so we’re pleased to consider ourselves friends.

From left: Stephen, Brenda, Mitch, Heather and Doug.

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My cousin Maureen and her husband John moved to Edmonton in December to be closer to their kids and grandkids. Luckily, we were able to connect and have a great dinner and good long visit. Maureen and I have our origins in Gaspe, then Montreal, then southern Ontario and now out west. This is one of the things we are discovering as we travel  – we all have interesting flight paths.
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That’s enough for now. We loved Edmonton, extended our planned time here by another three days and it still wasn’t enough. We’ll be back (although not in February).

We spent today at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village just outside Edmonton, and it merits a (much shorter) blog posting all of its own. Coming soon…

Serengeti of the North

We left Fort St. John to drive north to Liard River Hot Springs in search of BIG animals – bear, caribou, moose, bison and stone sheep. Our first stop was Fort Nelson – an easy four hour drive and a comfortable rest stop – renovated Motel 6 with full kitchen and good wifi, and a very Vancouver-ish vegetarian restaurant just up the street. Perfect transition before we hit the road the next day for Liard River Hot Springs – just south of the Yukon border.

The  area between Fort Nelson and the Yukon border has earned the title “Serengeti of the North“. This area is teeming with wildlife – you cannot drive this highway without seeing animals.

First up was this big boy – we watched him roll in the mud, then lurch up to his full majestic height. We saw two bison by the side of the road, but had a nocturnal visitor just outside our campsite.  According to the park operator, Fred the bison makes his late night rounds, stomping noisily though the campground. A reminder that a nylon tent might not be the most practical choice for northern camping.

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Caribou travel in small herds, and are notorious for coming right onto the road to lick the salt. Luckily, they are timid and move away quickly once cars approach.

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Nothing timid about the Stone sheep. It falls to the driver to pay attention and move around them.

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We drove by slowly and pulled up beside the male for a staring contest. Guess who won?

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And then there were the bears; mainly black bears in the Liard River area – the grizzlies are a little further north. Our son Dan was perturbed that we were entering bear country without bear spray, and we were probably being a bit ignorant of the reality of travelling, hiking and camping in the northern wilderness. Certainly the locals come equipped to handle bear encounters. One of the park operators showed us his weapon of choice – bear bangers.  No bullets, just a loud noise.

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Signs like this one are posted in most campgrounds and hiking areas.

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As if to prove a point, we saw this little fellow just outside our campground. He looked to be just a youngster  and was so interested in eating that he refused to oblige with a decent profile shot.

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With all the bear warnings, followed by this sighting, I was quite nervous to begin our first into-the-woods hike. There was not one other car in the parking area and we were feeling quite alone. I never did relax, in spite of my manic whistling and clapping. Once I  reassured myself about the statistical odds of bear attack, I could appreciate it was a lovely woodland hike, along a creek.

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We walked along for about 20 minutes to the waterfall;  then I beat a hasty retreat back to our truck. Stephen was less concerned about being bear bait.

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We spent two nights camping at Liard River Hot Springs campground.  It was a perfect mix of rustic camping (pit toilets, no showers) mixed with a book exchange shelf at the office and homemade bread for sale.  This was our site.

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Liard River Hot Springs is not to be missed. It is one of the largest natural hot springs in Canada, with temperatures between 42C and 53C degrees. The hot springs are reached by a leisurely 10-minute walk along a boardwalk.

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Along the way, you pass by a marshy area that promised (but did not deliver) frequent moose sightings.
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And…the hot springs – ranging from scalding at the source:

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…to more temperate water for those with tender skin.

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We left Liard with great reluctance. Everyone we met was on their way to Alaska, or returning back south again. We only just skimmed the surface of the north and can’t wait to return next summer.

Even the highway has a story to tell – it is none other than the famed Alaska Highway (also known as the Alcan Highway). The Americans punched through 1500 miles from Dawson Creek to Alaska during WWII to protect Alaska from Japanese attack. Punched through is a factual term as bulldozers knocked down trees and gravel trucks followed behind at a blistering pace – timing was critical.

Driving such an historic highway felt somehow special, but the scenery alone was simply jaw-dropping. And the best part – we had the road to ourselves. Occasionally, we hop-scotched with cars and RVs, but the road stretched ahead with nothing but the view in front of us. No wonder this is such a favoured route with motorcyclists – we know so many people who have made the trek to Alaska. Imagine the freedom.

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This bike belonged to a man who had travelled all the way from Brazil to Alaska and was on his way back south to Miami, and then to South America via cargo ship. We wanted to chat with him, but he was in deep conversation with a young couple, so we just eavesdropped.

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And on to the scenery, which changed from rough and rocky to lush and green…and back again. These were our views for our four-hour drive.

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We had heard about the challenging northern roads, but we experienced mainly good conditions – the odd pothole and the asphalt a little worn in spots, but very easy to drive.  There are loads of rest stops and pull-outs, so plenty of opportunity for photos and just taking a breather from the road. It was reassuring to see a front end loader clearing rockfall.

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We made it back to Fort Nelson for the night and visited the excellent Heritage Museum there. We watched a video on the construction of the Alaska Highway; grainy old footage mixed in to great effect. To look at the photo above and realize this was a small part of a 1500-km. road that was blazed out of the wilderness in extremely difficult conditions in just nine months is astounding.

The museum exists thanks to Marl Brown, the 86-year-old “mad trapper”, who collected so many cars, trucks and artifacts he got the order from his wife to “move them somewhere.”

Marl with one of his vehicles – most of them still in good running order.

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Marl and people like him, are one of the reasons we are so keen to return. Characters, tall tales and deadly elements – this is a different and fascinating world.

We’ll be back north next summer – we have to see if the mosquitoes in Hay River are as bad as they say.

 

“God is great, beer is good, people are crazy”

The first time we heard these catchy lyrics was at the Legion in Fort St. John. Chicken dinner, $4 beer, 50/50 tickets and a meat draw. All this and karaoke, and in this neck of the woods music is solidly in the country camp.  People are Crazy by Billy Currington was the highlight of the night – sung with raspy emotion by a rangy, plaid-clad gentleman. It pretty much sums up the way of the road up here – God-fearing, beer-drinking characters who thrive in this slightly wild northern town.

We’re on Week One of our camping trip in northern B.C. and Alberta, with our first stop in Fort St. John to visit our son Dan, who has been living and working here for the past seven years. Here we are, happily re-united.

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Before I tell you more about Fort St. John, I want to share a few photos of our drive up from Horseshoe Bay, near Vancouver. We camped for three nights along the way, and enjoyed watching how the landscape changed the further north we went.

Our first night we camped in Nairns Falls, just south of Pemberton. We’re in bear country now and the hand-written “Bear in Area” signs are a responsible warning and a reminder to be aware of our surroundings. We hiked along for three kilometres on a beautiful groomed path high above the river without seeing anything bigger than a dog on a leash.

I promise I will keep selfie shots to a minimum, especially since we don’t seem to have the knack of shooting without reflection .

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The next day we drove through the magnificent Duffey Lakes Road, a twisty, scenic route much beloved by motorcyclists. It requires full attention to navigate the hairpin turns, and after a couple of hours, we welcomed the chance to stop by this lake for a breather.

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Another viewpoint as we headed north.

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This year, everything is green and lush – the season so far has been cool-ish and punctuated with plenty of rainy days. This time last year, wildfires were wreaking havoc in much of B.C. and the damage is still evident.

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Finally, about an hour outside of Fort St. John, we are in the heart of the Peace River Valley.

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The setting around Fort St. John is stunning – the Peace River cuts through thick forest, high hills and fields of canola against a backdrop of the ever-changing big northern sky.

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Just a short drive out of town and the vistas open up. The light is different, the air is cleaner, the sky is bigger – there is a defining look.

This could just as easily be northern Minnesota or Manitoba. A northern lake, built a little more for fishing than swimming.

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Fields of canola – one of our favourite Fort St. John scenes.

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Fort St. John is not as pretty – a utilitarian northern working town set on a grid (100th St. bisects 100th Ave.), with basic shopping and streets of modest homes whose driveways are filled with big boy toys. This is a typical neighbourhood in oil and gas country.

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What Fort St. John lacks in style, it makes up for in heart. Billed as “The Energetic City“, this is a very young town, populated with young families. Huge modern recreational facilities – hockey arena, curling rink, swimming pool and library provide residents with a reason to stay beyond the oil patch paycheques.

Those paycheques attract a somewhat transient crowd, but the city is also well-defined by those born and bred here. Trendy coffee shops, artisan pizza and vintage clothing stores are finding a healthy market among the Mark’s Work Wearhouse and Quiznos customers.

And now, on to the elephant in the room, the highly controversial Site C dam project. When we first began driving up here seven years ago to visit Dan, the project was on hold, and “NO SITE C” signs were everywhere. It seemed inconceivable that a great swath of the Peace River Valley would be flooded out, after the expropriation of generations-old farmlands in some of the richest agricultural land in the province.

In 2017, construction began, and in spite of huge protests and much governmental to-ing and fro-ing, the project is indeed a go. It is due to be completed in 2024, for untold billions of dollars and untold environmental damage.

While much of the site is strictly off-limits, there is a viewpoint for the public to watch the progress.  This is part of what it looks like after a year. The dam will be built roughly in this spot, with the reservoir behind it.

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While ultimately the dam will generate the least amount of greenhouse gas emissions than any other form of energy (with coal being the worst and solar being the second best), the controversy lies with the construction.

Our son Dan works on the Site C project.  He pointed out the dozens and dozens of diesel-emitting trucks that are on the site, and what their cumulative effect on the environment might be by the time this project is completed. The expropriation of prime farmland is another factor that is impossible to gloss over.

In the north, where oil and gas extraction (and its attendant environmental concerns) are a mainstay of the economy, attitudes are different than they are in the south. People here are not cavalier or uneducated; they are pragmatic. That same attitude prevails for Site C and the final economic, environmental and personal outcome will take years to be realized.

Back to our visit with Dan. We live so far from each other and only have a chance to visit two or three times a year, so we pack a lot in.  We are in a beautiful campground just outside of town, and we’ve spent a lot of time here in the evenings, going for hikes, tossing a frisbee, and sitting around a campfire.  Amazingly, the bugs have not been too bad – we’re hoping that is a trend.

On a hike near Dan’s home.

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And… a little mishap. Being on the road is no different than being at home, as far as mishaps go. You can break a tooth ( I did that several years ago in Halifax), or you can break a car window.  We had our truck parked outside Dan’s place, and as we were leaving to go out, the old gent who mows the lawn for Dan’s landlady was in the backyard, and wondered if we were the owners of the red truck. Well, yes, we were. He thought perhaps his mower had caught a rock and flung it up on our truck. He had noticed “a bit of glass”.

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Shock and disbelief turned to action (where to find a glass place on Saturday at 4:00 pm?), turned to our new reality. The land of Dodge Rams and F350s does not carry glass for our dainty Nissan, so our new window is being shipped from Edmonton and our departure has been delayed by two days. The bill for a new window is less than our deductible, but not more than we can afford, and so it goes. What to do but be philosophical about it?

Our next stop is Fort Nelson for one night and Liard Hot Springs for three nights. So far the only wildlife we have seen is a fox, and we are hoping that route further north will live up to its reputation as being the Serengeti of the North.

Wifi in campgrounds will be non-existent, and possibly spotty elsewhere, so we hope to see you all again in about a week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making sense of India

It has been said that one is not a “traveller” until one has been to India. I don’t have a lot of patience with that sanctimonious observation. India is challenging and confounding and unfathomable and it will take us weeks to process everything we experienced, but good grief – travelling through India has not earned us a special traveller’s badge.  What it has done is knocked down a number of  preconceptions and stereotypes we had about India that were inaccurate and simplistic. It’s also served as a solid reminder of how lucky we are – we knew it before, but we really know it now.

I’ll begin this posting with a train trip – the famous Shimla-Kalka UNESCO toy train to be exact.  Built in 1898 to connect mountainous Shimla to the rest of India’s rail lines,  this six-car “toy train” runs on 30″ narrow-gauge tracks, and takes five and a half hours to travel 96 km. The tracks climb 4660 feet by running through 107 tunnels and crossing 864 bridges. It is an engineering marvel and it is also hugely popular – the trains are booked months in advance. We missed out on our trip up to Shimla, but luckily for us, our host was able to pull a few strings and secure us two seats on our return trip.

Our train left at 10.25 a.m.  with a gregarious family as our seat mates and open windows for A/C. We got the full Indian rail experience.

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The scenery was beautiful for almost the entire trip and punctuated with sweet little train stations.

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A toy train can feel less like a train and more like an amusement park ride. Our connection to our surroundings was vivid and a bit disconcerting – travelling over a high stone bridge felt like being suspended in thin air.

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This video will give you an idea of our toy train adventure. Please note the carefree, safety-first approach to train travel in India – each door was filled with passengers who sat, stood or chatted on their phones as the scenery whizzed by.

 


This was a memorable way to end our trip before flying home – 14 hours of binge-watching movies, listening to passengers snore and eating breakfast at 3:00 a.m. We arrived in Toronto at 5:30 a.m.,  and waited for an hour while Indian families hauled multiple massive suitcases off the conveyor belt until finally our two backpacks swirled up and dumped down. We walked out into the cold, snowy air and thought, “what the heck just happened to us?”

We’re still digesting our experiences but so far these are the impressions that have stayed with us and we’d like to share them with you.
India is not for everyone, and after three months of travelling by tuk-tuk, bus, train, plane and ferry across rivers, backwaters, lakes, mountains, cities, villages, desert, jungle and forest, we’re still not sure if it was for us. Our friend Sheila had warned us about the obvious challenges – the garbage, the dirt, the poverty, the beggars – but said, “you must go.”  We don’t disagree and we’re not sorry we went, but we’re not sure if we would go again. Travelling through India is not relaxing. It requires constant stamina, flexibility and energy and there are times when the rewards are not immediately obvious. We met a Canadian woman of Pakistani descent who travels to India every 10 years to see family. She was aghast to discover we were in India for three months. “You don’t come to India for a vacation.

We met many other tourists who had been to India multiple times and loved it. There is only one way to know how you will react – to borrow Sheila’s phrase, “you must go.”

We met an Indian gentleman who wisely said, “there are many Indias in India”. Munnar was  one of our favourite Indias.

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I was nervous about travelling through India, and one of my biggest fears was rats. Where there is garbage, heat and humidity, rats will follow and I envisioned  legions of rodents, outnumbering Indians 2 to 1. The first week we arrived, I saw four rats (all of them dead), and with the exception of one healthy rat running down the stairs at a railway station, that was it. Not another rat in three months of travel.
One fear down, a few more to follow.

We were concerned about the poverty we would encounter and it was far worse than we had imagined. India has the highest rate of undrinkable water in the world, the second-highest rate of TB in the world, and 140,000 children die of diarrheal-related illnesses every year. We saw so many people with foot problems – club feet, inward-turning feet, even feet with high arches and thinly-stretched webs of skin from toes to ankle. We wondered if these were birth defects that could have been fixed in the early years, but for lack of money, resources, whatever, were not.
We were shocked by the number of beggar children on the streets, the wizened and frail older people, and the sheer numbers of people who were not beggars, but were still in dire need. It became a defining quality of India, and it coloured a lot of our positive impressions of the country.

That, and the garbage.  We had been warned about the garbage before we arrived, but with one or two exceptions, the garbage is everywhere…and it’s hard to understand why. It is a problem that is complex and multi-generational, so the desired solution of a clean India seems near-impossible to achieve. The view from our toy train ride from Shimla should have been pristine, but it was marred by miles of foil, plastic, and food wrappers that have been thrown out the windows of eight daily trains for years.

We met an articulate young woman who offered her perspective on the Indian attitude and behaviour around garbage.  “Indians are very clean in their homes, but they will sweep out onto the street and expect someone else to clean up. Traditionally, it is the lower caste who pick up garbage and sweep up public spaces, so Indians consider handling garbage is dirty and not their job.”  After listening to her, this sign we had seen posted in Panaji made a lot more sense.

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Of course, the image of cows wandering free in India is an iconic one, but at first it was an unnerving and almost comical sight.  I’ve been told that cows are fed to ensure milk production, but bulls, who have no value, are left to their own devices.
Many animals can be found rooting through the garbage; I once saw a cow with ribs protruding, listlessly chewing on a plastic rope.

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Dogs fare little better – possibly their only consolation is companionship – they tend to congregate in packs. We had just one hostile encounter with dogs; mainly they are either searching for food or sleeping.

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There are so many religions and gods in India, often with much tension between them.  We’re not naive enough to think that a religious person is only capable of good, but the gap between devout belief and appalling violence or disregard for others ( humans and animals) is very hard for a foreigner to comprehend.

Our friend Shelley recommended William Dalrymple and I am currently reading his excellent book “Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India.”  He writes without judgement and I am keen to gain at least a partial understanding.

Sanitation in India is an ongoing challenge – with crumbling infrastructure, unclean water supply and a massive population straining the systems. We had heard the stories before we arrived – ” Be prepared to squat. Make sure you bring your own toilet paper.” No big deal and no different from many other countries in the world. Toilet paper, hand sanitizer – good to go.

Our reality check  was a little less cavalier. Fifty-three percent of Indians do not have toilets in their homes.  We never witnessed open defecation, but the sight of men peeing in public became so common we no longer noticed.

Away from hotels and guesthouses, the condition of toilets is unpredictable. Sometimes squat, sometimes, western, usually no toilet paper or soap. Almost always dirty. If I entered a squat toilet, I would roll my pants up around my knees to avoid dragging them on the filthy wet floor. That became normal. A clean toilet with soap was noteworthy and in this case, a selling point.

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Based on inaccurate information I read about the difficulties of obtaining a SIM card,  we chose not to bring our phone with us.  Big mistake. Everyone in India has a cell phone – and not just a cheap flip-phone, but a smartphone.  In fact, one can get a SIM card in 48 hours – activate it one day and return with your phone the next  and voila – you can now order up UBER cabs, and have GPS and operate like any self-respecting Indian would. Don’t even think  about coming to India without your phone.

I was concerned about what to wear in India, both for modesty and to cope with the heat. Here’s the best advice I can give you – bring a very few things to tide you over. Unless you  are staying exclusively in Goa, where anything goes, you will want to cover your shoulders and legs, and it can be done easily and comfortably.  Hit the markets and you can outfit yourself for a few dollars, refrain from offending anyone and most importantly, remain cool in the heat and humidity. I bought palazzo pants, harem pants, and a few loose tops with three-quarter sleeves. It felt counter-intuitive to cover so much of my body, but the light cottons protected my skin and kept me much cooler than a sundress would have.
Men can get away with almost anything, but in some places shorts are frowned upon, so a pair of light cotton pants would work well – you’ll stay much cooler, fit in better and not look like such a tourist galoot.   

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We got used to the crazy traffic, used to losing our “personal space” and became quite comfortable with the staring, which was rarely hostile.  We were asked to pose for countless selfies – we were as much of a novelty to them as they were to us.

The one behaviour we could not cope with was butting in line – this happened all the time. It is quite remarkable to watch. You are standing in line – waiting for the ATM, or to buy your groceries, or to go through security at the airport. Suddenly someone appears beside you, then noses in front of you. We silently fumed until we watched Indians  tell the miscreants to move to the back, and we realized, “This is not an acceptable Indian behaviour, this is the behaviour of someone with bad manners.” Interestingly, most queue-jumpers will comply quite easily once they have been confronted.

So, with the annoying, confusing and upsetting aspects of India out of the way, our final impressions are still very positive.

The best part of India? The people, without question. We had so many memorable encounters with Indians we met along the way – conversations in restaurants, open-hearted welcomes in guesthouses, casual chats on the street. We found Indians to be funny, curious, warm, helpful and engaged people, and almost to a person, they wanted to know how we liked their country.

India is so incredibly diverse that it is not possible to pinpoint a favourite place, although that following places stand out for us –  Munnar (mountain trekking), Goa ( beautiful beaches and sublime swimming), most of Rajasthan ( forts, camels, desert), Pondicherry (French influence) and Amritsar (Golden Temple) and Shimla (finally – cool, clean air).

In three months, we missed way more than we saw – you can’t see India in one trip. We didn’t go to any of the large cities (our choice), missed the Taj Mahal (a disappointment – I was sick), and did not get up into the high Himalayas or on to Nepal. We missed the many tiger reserves and bird sanctuaries. Who knows – maybe we will go back again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monkey Menace in Shimla

There are over 2500 rhesus macaques creating havoc in Shimla; known to the locals as The Monkey Menace.

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They are easily identified by their bright red faces and backsides, and by their brazen and fearless manner. In our seven days here, we have had a few close encounters with these scary simians. We were hissed at walking home from dinner one night; without provocation we were confronted by a big red angry face just inches from our path. We’ve been charged at for food. Stephen was polishing off a bag of chips when a large male monkey ran across the street, heading straight for us – we threw the bag in the garbage and backed away. Locals are no less leery of these monkeys; we watched several people jump to their feet and clear out as a monkey made his way along the fence behind a row of benches. It is with good reason – the rhesus macaques will jump on people to grab food, glasses, and hats. They have been known to attack and bite. Efforts to cull and/or sterilize them have proven fruitless, and their numbers continue to grow.

In spite of all this, Stephen and I chose to take the steep climb up to Jakhu Temple, one of the highest points in Shimla, guarded by a healthy simian population. Visitors are warned to carry big sticks to ward off the more aggressive monkeys, so it was not without a fair bit of trepidation that we began our climb.

The path begins with this sign for testing fitness levels.  It is a 2.5 km. walk to the top, most of it straight up. (We finished the climb up in 45 minutes; down in 33). Apparently we are “ABSOLUTELY FIT” – news to us.

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The climb up was, in a word, – brutal. At one point we both were ready to give up, but for our pride. We were passed by families with small children; many of the ladies wearing thin sandals. We met up with this gentleman, carrying his grandson for much of the way.

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We met up with them a little later at a rest stop. This was our turning point – if this sweet man and his little grandson could make this climb, then we would as well.

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Our first indication that there were monkeys in the neighbourhood – many cars were covered with thorny branches, to foil simian theft of the windshield wipers.

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Dozens of monkeys met us on the final ascent, but interestingly, none approached us. We had no need for a big stick, but we did keep a close eye on them.

One of the gatekeepers at the entrance to the temple. The figure behind him is a statue, not a human.

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The 98-foot bright orange statue of Lord Hanuman is lit up at night, and visible from the town of Shimla. When we reached the summit, this was our close-up view.

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Back down in town, the monkeys are no less a presence. Many homes and buildings are monkey-proofed, with enclosed chain-link cages and barbed wire.

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While we’re on the subject of animals, let me introduce you to the beautiful and unique Rajasthani horses that are a fixture on the Ridge. I did a little research on these animals, and the Marwari horses seem to match the appearance – small, lean and with ears that turn inward to the point of almost touching. However, I asked two of the owners and they both called them “Indian horses from Rajasthan.”

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There are usually about 10 horses lined up and ready for rides and it can be quite comical to watch.  Each rider is led by the owner, usually with a small press corps in pursuit, so no actual “riding” takes place. I probably could have managed this.

In addition to the usual complement of excited children, there were a number of young men; quite unconcerned about the optics of being led around like a pony ride at a fair.

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This fabulous specimen of Indian manhood was happy to pose for a photo. He may have thought I was admiring his biceps, but I wanted to show you his hair. Most Indian men have luxuriant thick black hair – baldness is not as common here as it is in North America.
Many young men style their hair short on the back and sides with a 3-inch hive on top – a hipster pompadour that they carry off very well.

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And now onto some of the more enterprising business plans we have run across. I mentioned the bathroom scales in the last post – I tried my luck at another set of scales today (this time one with horseshoes), and yes!…down another 2 pounds. This woman was charging just 5 rupees – she would need 10 customers to make just one dollar.

Right beside her was a woman selling hand-knitted children’s slippers. At least a dozen woman have small stands set up and they sit for hours, knitting and chatting and tending to their children, but I never saw a single sale.

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When we first saw this lineup of baby strollers, we thought perhaps a massive birthday party was being held in a nearby restaurant. But no, these strollers and a couple of wheelchairs are for rent. How intriguing! I’m trying to imagine how anyone with either mobility issues or small children would find themselves in hilly Shimla without their necessary accoutrements. Apparently these enterprising gentlemen have seen fit to invest in these products, just in case.

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We passed by this one-stop shop a number of times before I really appreciated the diversity of the goods and services being offered. A homeopathic clinic, bolstered by fresh fruit, hot chai, plants, selfie sticks and backpacks.

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There were quite a few businesses that were around before Independence and have hung in all these years. This musty old Antiquarian bookshop was a bit of surprise. Who are the customers for this highly specialized business?

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The Embassy Restaurant, in business since 1942, has changed with the times – selling “good ice cream to good people”.

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The Indian Coffee House is another relic, with a fascinating history and branches all over India. We visited one in Pondicherry, and this one is a variation on that same theme – ancient servers, cracked leather seats, less-than-pristine interior, and really great coffee. You get the feeling the same old gents have been meeting here daily for years – tourists and women stand out, but are still welcome.

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Part of the decor…and the charm. Right of Admission Reserved – as I looked around the room, I wondered what the criteria might be for customer selection.

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There are many sides of Shimla, and some are less picturesque than others. This is how we imagined Shimla:  moody and mountainous.
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Here, Shimla from another vantage point – a good perspective of how this city has grown from British hill station to almost 200,000 people clinging to the hillsides.

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And, of course, like any city – not everyone gets the great view.

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We’ve spoken to a number of Indians who are adamantly opposed to the caste system that is still in existence in India, most particularly in rural areas. We met a young woman who is a lawyer and who is immigrating to Toronto in May. She offered a bright and articulate view of her country (which she fully intends to return to one day), and offered us an interesting perspective on the subject of garbage. She told us that Indians are very clean in their homes, but will sweep out to the streets, confident that their mess will be cleaned up by someone else. In her opinion the reason Indians do not carry their garbage with them until they find a bin is that it is considered “dirty” – the job of the low-caste person who is responsible for garbage, sweeping the streets, etc.

A strong movement is afoot to eliminate the caste system and not relegate lowly jobs to people who have had no means to escape their destiny.  A nation-wide strike took place yesterday, with businesses closing down for several hours in solidarity.

The streets of Shimla were filled with dozens of police and military, including these riot police. There were hundreds of protesters out, but as far as we could tell, it was peaceful.

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While all this was going on, we were on another epic trek (15 km. return – uphill both ways:>) to explore the wooded areas just outside the city core, and to see Annandale, once the playground for the British elite with horse racing, polo and cricket, and now Shimla’s only golf course.

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Although it was a beautiful day, there was just one golfer on the course; possibly this alarming sign has frightened off potential members.

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Annandale is also the grounds for the Army Heritage Museum; an excellent museum that showcases the history of the Indian Army and underlines the great importance and prestige the Army holds in India.

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The grounds are beautifully maintained; we enjoyed a peaceful couple of hours here before we attempted the ThighMaster of a road back up to the top of the hill.

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About halfway up the hill, we came upon the Shimla British Resort; once a grand old dame and now a somewhat musty old hotel that does not appear to have been updated or well maintained. Still…another glimpse into the old days of British rule.

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Probably the most impressive of all was the former Viceregal Lodge, now the Indian Institute of Advanced Study. This magnificent building was completed in 1888 and was the official summer residence of the British viceroys until 1946.

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This was the location of government every summer from April to October, and tours are available daily. Our timing was poor as we chose Easter Sunday to visit, along with hundreds of other tourists; the wait for a tour was over 2 1/2 hours. When we asked if it was worth it to wait, the ticket-taker shrugged, “a bunch of photos and old furniture.”
That took the sting out of missing out, so we had a grand time exploring the beautiful grounds instead.

And…that’s it, folks. Our time in Shimla has almost come to an end. We had missed out on the famous narrow gauge toy train to come here ( it books up months in advance), but through a great stroke of luck we are taking the toy train back down. Our host pulled a few strings for us, and we are as happy as if we had tickets to a sold-out concert.

Our last posting will be in a few days – a few photos of our train trip, and a reflection of our time in India.

 

Shimla’s mountain air: cool at last

For the past 90 days, we have sweltered and sweated our way through India; our faces dripping and our clothes sticky.  Three days ago, after five hours of bus travel, we climbed 2200 metres into the foothills of the Himalayas and left the heat and humidity behind.

Our last week in India will be spent in India’s oldest hill station – the former summer playground of the British upper crust and the current favourite of newlyweds and Indian families fleeing the spring and summer heat. Today in Delhi it was 38 degrees; in Shimla, it was 23 degrees with a light breeze. Once night falls, we  will need coats and hoodies. We’ve been sleeping under two heavy blankets and no air conditioning – heaven.

Shimla, with the snowy peaks of the Himalayas on the horizon.

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We have been putting our legs and lungs to the test – the town is built on seven steep hills, and the inclines can be brutal. Some of the smaller staircases are a little heartstopping – a fall down these stairs and you would be airborne.

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We’ve been able to soften our ascents and descents by sticking to the broader roads, most of them pedestrian-only. The main part of Shimla’s centre core is defined by The Ridge, a large open area ringed with small greenspaces, monuments to Gandhi and Indira Gandhi, and vistas of the town and mountains. This is where everyone gathers- Ground Zero for  the millions of selfies that threaten to drive me mad. I’m trying to sidestep fogey attitudes, but  for some reason, selfie-nation gets under my skin in a big way. There is no background too innocuous for a selfie; no opportunity wasted for yet another shot of me, glorious me.

Don’t hate me cause I’m beautiful. (at some point I may look around and appreciate the scenery, or…maybe not.)

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Selfies aside, without cars and motorbikes and tuk-tuks dominating the landscape, the people-watching becomes far more interesting.

Stephen has been collecting photos of mannequins – this started last year in SE Asia, where the mannequins were bizarre and downright scary. He’s found a few in India and noticed this one – her hair cut with pinking shears by a stoned best friend who also gave her really bad advice on eyeglasses. The gorgeous girls in front of the mannequin wanted us to take a photo of them as well.

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We stopped in a square for a break from our mountaineering, and almost immediately these two little brothers began tearing around in front of us – trying to get our attention and showing off outrageously.  Of course, we were encouraging them until their mother scolded them to behave properly, and on her instruction, they came over to practice their English.  “Are you from America?” “Do you like India?” “Thank-you for speaking to us.”
There are a number of very good schools in Shimla, and these two boys are attending one of them – learning their subjects in English.

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Shimla is different from much of India in a number of ways. Due to the steep terrain, traffic is confined to lower roads,  which means much of the city core is like a walk in the park –  peaceful and stress-free. There are very few beggars here, so hopefully that means there is a little more money to go around for more people. There is very little garbage on the streets. There are do-not-litter signs up everywhere, and plenty of garbage cans. Shimla has declared itself a smoke-free city and smoking inside and outside is punishable by fine. We did not see a single smoker – amazing. And – hallelujah – spitting is another civic misdemeanour.  We did see a few spitters, but it’s a hard habit to break.

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I marvelled at this store. Does this mean anyone could kit themselves out in full uniform and pass themselves off as police officers? Think of the revenue possibilities.

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Two of Shimla’s police officers in ceremonial garb – patrolling the streets.

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Due to the incredibly steep inclines on many of the streets, moving goods is done by sheer brute human force. You can imagine what four cases of pop weighs, held in place by heavy nylon straps. We saw many such amazing feats of strength – including incredibly, a full-sized refrigerator.

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The main shopping street, called The Mall, weaves around the Ridge on either side and runs for seven km. This is where tourists and locals congregate, and where some of the town’s main attractions and interesting architecture are found.

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One very curious business enterprise in Shimla are bathroom scales. Vendors set up blankets on the ground with the scales in front (and mysteriously, there are often horseshoes set up alongside – perhaps a token of good luck for the weigh-ee?) The cost is 10 rupees – about 20 cents. I passed by a number of decrepit scales until I came to this lady, with her bright shiny digital scale, unadorned with horseshoes – just the scale.  I liked her style, plus she charged double her competitor’s prices – 20 rupees, so with the logic of “you get what you pay for”, I removed my shoes, and hopped on. Aha! I’ve lost at least 10 pounds  – worth every rupee.

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Thus encouraged, we continued on to our destination – The Oberoi Cecil Hotel.

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Built 130 years ago on the site of Tendril Cottage, where Rudyard Kipling lived and wrote his novels, The Oberoi Cecil played a large role in the social life of the British Raj era and was the scene of many balls and galas. As Kipling noted, Shimla at the height of British rule had a reputation for ” frivolity, gossip and intrigue.” The Cecil no doubt added to that reputation.

It was completely refurbished in 1997, in the  original understated old money style and while we could not afford $400 a night to stay there, we decided to stop for lunch in the atrium, just to absorb the atmosphere.

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Our delightful waiter would have noticed our less-than-polished appearance and our consternation over the menu prices. When we decided to forego lunch and share the least expensive item on the menu, he nodded as approvingly as though we had just chosen the Himalayan trout, paired with a crisp white wine.

Our coffee, served with tea cakes and complimentary biscuits. Coffee was excellent, cakes were a touch dry.  Our bill was just over $30. (Lunch would have been just under $100). Nonetheless, a wonderful experience.

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The main dining room of the Oberoi Cecil. Can you not imagine the glasses of sherry and the poached fish and the dinner conversations?

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Shimla still has many buildings from its heyday as the summer capital. From 1864 to 1939, the entire government of India would flee the heat of Calcutta and transport all the files and documents of government to Shimla. It became not just the centre of government, but also the stage for the social life of the British elite.  Picnics, balls, galas, hunting, and amateur theatre at the Gaiety Theatre became the focus of each Season.

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The Gaiety Theatre has been beautifully restored, and on-site historian Mr. Gautam gave us a very animated and interesting tour of the theatre and explanation of its history. He modestly shook his head when I ask him if he was also an actor, and acknowledged that I was not the first to come to that conclusion.

The theatre was a huge diversion, and each summer plays by Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw would be staged by amateur  British actors to a British-only audience. No Indians allowed – neither on stage nor in the audience.

Today, about 15 local theatre groups still perform on the well-worn stage.

View from the stage.

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Restoration projects are happening all over Shimla – so many grand mansions that have sadly been left to ruin.  This one – Bantony Castle – is almost impossible to imagine that it can be reclaimed. It has deteriorated to the point where the roof has collapsed in spots, so interior damage must be severe. However, restoration is in the works – it would be so interesting to see when the work is completed.

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The simple, elegant Christ Church Cathedral is another landmark from the British era. Built in 1846, it is one of the oldest churches in northern India.  We walked around the side to the manse, where they were serving Good Friday hot cross buns and coffee.

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Shopping in Shimla is a curious mix of Western knock-offs (Puma, Adidas), carved wooden toys and keychains and embroidered clothing and wool shawls. We bought a large shawl made of yak wool from Tibet, (which we will likely use as a lap blanket) – our only purchase so far, other than light clothing. There were many beautiful things along the way, but we didn’t want to have to carry stuff along with us as we travelled, so we’ve bought nothing. We may end up spending our remaining rupees at the Delhi airport.

Fancy gold jewellery is a huge thing in India – for weddings and for everyday use. While this jewellery is far too ornate for me, it is perfectly suited to Indian women, with their beautiful saris, their white teeth and red lipstick and their dark colouring.

There are a number of very good jewellery stores in Shimla – here is an example of some typical Indian gold jewellery.

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This has nothing to do with shopping, but is an interesting fact of life in Shimla.  Since vehicles are limited to the lower roads, traffic is horrendous and parking is at a premium. Most of the roads have limited shoulders and/or are on very steep inclines. Many hotels have just a handful of parking spaces for their guests and this is what they look like. Can you imagine the nerves required to park cars on this rooftop?

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Sunset at Shimla.

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We’re in Shimla for another four days and have lots more to tell you about.  I’ll be sending out another posting before we leave.

Happy Easter from India!